Compassionate Evangelicalism

How a document conceived 30 years ago has prompted us to care more about 'the least of these.

In 1973, a group of 50 evangelical leaders spent the weekend after Thanksgiving at the YMCA hotel on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Just when Paul Henry, a political science professor from Calvin College, was urging the group to break evangelicals' silence on the social evils of the day, a shot rang out in the hotel corridors. The hotel was no luxury palace, and this was not your typical evangelical weekend conference.

The conferees gathered to commit to social justice. The conference's concern would not be so unusual today. Now evangelicals left, center, and right agree that social justice is one of the central callings of all Christians. Thirty years ago, only a frustrated minority—like those at the Chicago meeting—thought so. Today evangelicals may disagree about what policies will get us there, but they agree about the need to pursue "the righteousness that exalts a nation." Three decades ago, a lot of evangelicals would have called this political meddling, if not selling out the gospel.

The radical shift in modern evangelicalism began when these assembled delegates met amid the violence of inner city Chicago. They represented a wide array of traditions and viewpoints, and they found that they had to confront each other if they were to assure that the declaration they were crafting would be truly comprehensive and speak prophetically. Their manifesto had to address economic justice, peacemaking, racial reconciliation, and gender concerns within a biblical framework, and in ways that honored an evangelical passion for others' salvation in Jesus Christ.

The prevailing consensus of evangelicals regarding social justice suggests the delegates succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. The Chicago Declaration remains fresh ...

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Compassionate Evangelicalism
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December 2003

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